Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan really doesn’t like social media. He described it as “the worst menace to society” after introducing a Turkish TV audience to “a scourge which is called Twitter” while the Gezi Park protests — for which the platform was an essential means of organization and communication — were underway last year. It recently attracted his ire once again after damaging corruption allegations and apparent security leaks were circulated online ahead of local elections seen by many as a vote of confidence in his leadership. Erdogan responded with a threat to “wipe out” Twitter and (temporarily) made good on it shortly afterwards when authorities blocked access to both it and YouTube.
Perhaps the tactics worked. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its share of the vote and kept control of both Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two biggest cities.
Opponents worry that these victories may encourage his more autocratic tendencies. However, as dissent is increasingly suppressed, civil society is becoming more organized and more effective in its response. “When you don’t have any space to express yourself, you find new ways,” said Engin Onder, a scruffy-bearded, 20-something Ankaran typical of Erdogan’s social media-savvy opponents.
Onder’s response is a citizen-journalism platform named 140journos (for the character limit in a Tweet), which he co-founded with two friends. He describes it as a tool for reporting on issues — such as elections, protests, trials, LGBT rights, and Kurdish activism — that works through a network of around 300 volunteer content producers to verify, filter, and redistribute Tweets to its 40,000+ social media followers.
He sees the platform as being typical of a broader change in attitudes across Turkey. “This has been accelerating more and more in the past year. The country has developed a new protest model: getting organized through social media and hitting the streets, then coming back to the ‘headquarters’ again, which is Twitter,” he said. It is a well-populated HQ, with Turkey's Twitter penetration rate standing 31 percent (around 11 million users) higher than that of any other country in the world, according to data provided to the Financial Times by eMarketer.
Onder spoke with VICE News at 140journos sometime-offices in central Istanbul. He looked tired. The previous day, as he explained over sips of coffee, the editorial team had finished up 72 hours of round the clock election coverage — editing and corroborating a constant stream of content and sleeping in shifts.
The organization also played its own part in monitoring the accuracy of the elections. Volunteers at polling stations sent 140journos thousands of smartphone photographs of vote count papers. These ballots were uploaded to a publicly accessible site, from which they were downloaded to a 150-person team that double-checked the election results by comparing the counts of these records with those on the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) website and flagged inconsistencies. There were, according to Onder, “thousands” of problems with the official results, some minor, some systematic. All were submitted to the YSK.
The team had had plenty of work to do before the elections too — helping to support a free press. The Turkish media has a long and ignominious history of not reporting on momentous events. Often this is a result of self-censorship in response to the threat of economic sanctions inflicted by the state (Erdogan appears not to be a huge fan of press freedom either). Sometimes it’s more explicit. Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world and ranks 154th of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 press freedom index — below a number of countries, including Russia, that aren’t known for being especially nice to journalists.
Onder and two of his friends were inspired to form 140journos after the Uludere massacre, in which the Turkish military accidentally killed 34 of its own citizens in a mis-targeted air-strike in late 2011. Most of the country’s press did not even mention the attacks for 24 hours, waiting for an okay from authorities. However, journalist Serdar Akinan covered the aftermath on Twitter.
Onder says he quickly understood the power of Akinan’s approach. “That was a tipping point for us as three random citizens,” Onder said. “We said we could do the same in our cities for issues that we are concerned about. That’s how it all began.”
It wasn’t until the Gezi Park protests of last year that things really took hold. As tens of thousands filled Istanbul’s Taksim Square in an unprecedented show of anti-government sentiment, one of the country’s largest television channels screened a documentary on penguins, while another opted for a cooking show. That Sunday, the widely-circulated Sabah newspaper, which is owned by a group run by Erdogan’s son in law — used its front page to celebrate an antismoking campaign headed by the PM.
With little or no quality local press coverage, breaking news spread almost exclusively on the vast, unverified wilds of social media, mixing facts with rumors and complete fabrications. The limitations of citizen journalism were quickly exposed. Accusations that riot police were using Agent Orange against protesters were widely circulated, for example; but the suspect canisters turned out to be colored smoke.
140journos were there throughout, attempting to connect professional and citizen journalism. It was a crucial moment for them. “Before Gezi, nobody was participating by sending news. During the protests it was an overnight revolution... Everyone became a journalist and started sending out information,” Onder explained. “We know what the mainstream media’s behavior is and we know how mis-informative social media can be... We [140journos] are creating a balance between the two.”
Its network of volunteers grew rapidly. Onder describes typical contributors as being “in their 20s” and “fed up with the blockage of freedom of speech.” Many are based in Ankara and Istanbul, but there are also large numbers in the Kurdish regions in the East of the country, such as Diyarbakir, where freedom of press has been particularly poor. “Being on Twitter and doing this stuff is a survival strategy for people there,” he said. “There is no other medium that they can use to have their voices heard. They have to do this.”
Onder is quick to point out that 140journos does not contain any professional or academically trained journalists. However, integrity and impartiality are still a priority. The platform did not spread the Agent Orange rumor. It wasn’t, after all, difficult to debunk: They just called some chemical engineer friends. Onder said with a smile, “Many people fell into this trap of misinformation… We phoned engineers and chemistry people to check. It helped us keep the news on our side so we didn’t add to the misinformation flow.”
Of the 10 members of the group’s editorial staff, half work essentially full-time to verify Tweets — typically by using publicly accessible resources, such as Topsy, Google Image Search, street view applications, or even feeds from local traffic cameras. The editorial team also communicates directly with contributors to check details and may ask for further information, such as a geotag (via Whatsapp) to confirm details or a location. It’s a case of merging 140journos’ human resources with publically accessible sources of information, Onder says.
To illustrate how it’s done, Onder took me through the process with a just-received tweet from a regular contributor showing a blocked street at the YSK in Ankara. First he checked that the image hasn’t turned up elsewhere online, then quickly located the spot the picture was taken using Yandex Panorama (a Russian version of Google Streetview), and finally found some other recent tweets with similar content. It was enough to verify accuracy.
Before he tweeted it, he reworded it to strip out any bias or opinion. It’s important, he says, so as not to alienate or offend any of 140journos’ followers, whose allegiances are diverse. Along with the expected moderates who camped out in Gezi, there are also AKP supporters and members of the Gülen movement. “They follow because we use this kind of language,” he said. “It’s just giving information.”
But the 140journos team is not content just reporting news. Onder views the organization as more of a data project than a journalistic one. It’s an important distinction, he says, as it helps them think of non-traditional tools and ventures.
The vote counting portal that was rolled out for the elections, for example, will be developed into a more comprehensive tool ahead of presidential elections scheduled for August. The group is currently working on a location-based application that will overlay data drawn from a number of publicly accessible sources onto a multi-layered application that will help situate the content being distributed.
The overall goal, Onder says, is to use information to help bridge the gap between diverse populations in a country that has found itself increasingly polarized under Erdogan’s confrontational leadership style. Onder stated, “We are in between, trying to empower civil society amongst all this fighting, anger, and hatred.”
Onder once had plans to monetize 140journos. Now, however, he thinks this will not be possible at least in the near future. Instead, he makes a living as part of a network of creative professionals that run a number of different media projects for art, design, and culture. For him, the platform is more than just employment; it’s an essential part of a fight against an increasingly authoritarian government. He said, “140journos has become a part of our lives… It’s not a job, it’s a must for us, and for our consciences.”